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Painting as Modeling

On View
Callicoon Fine Arts & Mary Boone Gallery
Sadie Benning: Green God
April 28 – July 29, 2016
New York

The first time I saw a grouping of Sadie Benning’s more recent paintings was at the Greater New York show at PS1 in 2015 – 16. Seen from afar they read loosely as geometric abstractions, residing formally somewhere between Mary Heilmann’s deadpan blocks of color and connective tissue, and brightly patterned, mid-20th century Naugahyde upholstery. Yet there was something quite different and unique about these works. Up close one could discern their jigsaw-like fabrication with each aqua resin and wood section carefully sanded to round each edge. Due in part to their asymmetry, these sections, painted in semi-gloss or matte colors, pulse gently together with a subtle, claylike vibration. Given the fairly reductive forms of these paintings, it was a surprise to discover a pictographic figuration popping up and boldly inhabiting the works at the artist’s concurrent shows at Callicoon Fine Arts and Mary Boone Gallery. These, too, maintain a childlike, modelling clay reference in their process; still, with this show Benning has chosen the overriding theme of the “Green God” to organize the puzzle forms into a seriously playful reverie of personal totem and painterly taboo.

Benning came to prominence in the early 1990s with rough-cut, primitive videos (shot on a Fisher-Price PixelVision camera) that explored personal narratives drawn from young adulthood experiences growing up in working-class Milwaukee as an emergent gender-equivocal individual while coping with the corresponding alienation from heteronormative America culture. This “outsider” position offered a unique perspective on stereotypical gender roles and allowed for the exploration of the idea of intimate relationships as societal constructions. Benning’s low-tech approach was perfectly suited to the diaristic narratives, which were strung together like scribbled anecdotes from real memories and projected desires. In this instance, the primitive medium was less a message than an intentional mess. Though minimally crafted, these filmic vignettes have the murky power of indirectly or weakly received signals, (a quality they share with some of Nan Goldin’s photographs and which also relates to Mark Morrisroe’s photo-based works). Benning’s approach was in line with these artists’ general disregard for traditionally tasteful aesthetics: beauty is traded for Rimbaudian power—the raw power of a vital, liberated sexuality and its mind concomitant, free to construct its own identity. There’s an emancipatory narrative nestled in Benning’s overall body of work which is gently reinforced by the humble means of delivery that the artist still typically employs. It comes cheap, but direct. This cheap-tasking of radically alternative content is no camp song; it’s closer to the steady interval of the centered heart, deeply resonant in its simple beat.

Green God presents the viewer with a curious pictorial (as opposed to the quasi- abstractions in the Greater New York show) array of Benning’s modeled paintings. The imagery is simple, sometimes bordering on cliché: an ocean sunset, childlike drawings of monster masks, a series of mini i-Phone compositions, rectangles mounted to primitive jet plane pictograms on a white expanse. In the past the artist has spoken about an interest in the fluctuating relationship between abstraction and figuration and its connections to somatic phenomenology: “ [I was] thinking more specifically about the body and wanting to depict these center parts.”1 This type of “centering,” which lends a phenomenal “hit” to the decal figuration that presides in the painted constructions, is crucial to understanding Benning’s work.

Sadie Benning, The Crucifixion, 2015. Aqua resin, wood, casein, and acrylic gouache. 81 x 61 inches. Courtesy the artist, Callicoon Fine Arts, and Mary Boone Gallery, New York. Photo: Chris Austin.

And then there are more powerfully iconic images such as a woman/girl cut-out superimposed on a cruciform, in The Crucifixion (2015) This combination of Play-doh morphology with a radical reinterpretation of a signal symbolic event in Christian orthodoxy can be unsettling, or liberating, depending upon the point of view and cultural conditioning of the viewer. With such explicit—albeit graphically basic—imagery, Benning sets up a heretical, visionary take on sacrifice and redemption, in which the transmogrification of the recalcitrant soul becomes subject to a swerve in identity position.

Benning prefers not to identify as traditionally gendered, so this would be the most direct correlational reading of such a work, yet the artist’s project shares with Mike Kelley’s more blatantly irreverent ecclesiastical banners the larger task of deconstructing so-called universal (catholic) beliefs as really the refined conceit of status-quo thinking. This is the exact point where the terms “model” and “modeling” diverge: the artist uses simple forms not to reconstruct an icon or a model, but to model the construction of iconography itself. Benning tries on iconic tropes as a child might play with his or her elder’s formal clothing. These works aren’t exactly painting in drag yet they mirror this analogy by way of their scale, color and rectangular proportions. The artist’s palette and forms, in works such as Worm God (2015), recall the post-Minimalist pop of artists such as Ellsworth Kelly or Jack Youngerman or the even older biomorphic abstraction of Arthur Dove, yet Benning is not directly indebted to these artists. A closer contemporary parallel might be found in Ruth Root’s lateral lobes of color. Benning’s voice (and the imagery that derives from it) still resides in the intimate, diaristic place that first established the artist’s reputation and within which lies its transformative power.

Sadie Benning, Worm God, 2015. Aqua resin, wood, casein, and acrylic gouache. 66 x 37 inches. Courtesy the artist, Callicoon Fine Arts, and Mary Boone Gallery, New York. Photo: Chris Austin.

The personal has always been political for Benning, and those politics have less to do with upholding a lineage of painterly abstraction/figuration and than with extending a radical ontology of style from a self-formed identity position. Benning is more Walt Whitman than Walter Darby Bannard. While Whitman deployed an arcane kind of highfaluting rhetorical style to deliver his simply transcendent message of the universal body electric, Benning uses simple forms to explore the stylistic complexity of intentional individuation. The invention of a “Green God” here is as much an invocation of a pagan deity as it is a demonstration of the Gumby malleability of identity, for this modelling simultaneously forms a metaphysical and more prosaic meaning. The artist has said of this fluctuation that, “the indeterminacy of the medium itself is really important to me. I want people to bring something of their own to it, to wonder what something actually is.”2

At the Mary Boone space there is evidence that Benning may be moving the work back into the rougher, collaged imagery that characterized the early videos. Besides a spectacularly frieze-like installation of a selection of previously described paintings, there are works such as Zombie (2016) and Eclipse (2015), both of which contain found objects inserted within the plane of each construction like thrift shop trophies. Benning resurrects Kelley’s stuffed doll pathos in The Owl and the King (2015), which features a photomontage of an Oscar the Grouch-type slouching doll along with carved wooden folk art statuettes.

Sadie Benning, The Owl and the King, 2015. Aqua resin, wood, casein, and digital photograph. 89 x 59 inches. Courtesy the artist, Callicoon Fine Arts, and Mary Boone Gallery, New York. Photo: Chris Austin.

These insertions have the effect of votive figures, household gods residing firmly in their respective niches. Unlike Haim Steinbach or Julia Wachtel, who have juxtaposed such figures in an ironic interplay with commodity critique, Benning seems more intent upon reanimating the totemic power latent in the artist's pickings. These allegories are scrounged from the fetish world—a cheaper, more accessible, brand of belief.

  1. Artist interview on Benning’s participation in the 2013 Carnegie International Exhibition, Carnegie Museum of Art.
  2. Interview with Lia Gangitano, BOMB Magazine, Number 135 / Spring 2016, 33-44


Tom McGlynn


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2016

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